Here’s a little free risk management advice: if you want to get a client out of your office, don’t yank them forcibly from their chair and drag them bloodied down the hall and out the door.
You’ll regret it when the resulting video goes viral. Just ask United Airlines.
As you no doubt know, United made headlines when it escorted a passenger off a plane on an overbooked flight at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. In this instance, “escorted” means summoning a team of burly security guards to pry a screaming 69-year-old doctor from his seat and haul him bleeding down the aisle in full view of horrified onlookers, some of whom predictably captured the incident on their smartphones.
What followed was a tsunami of bad publicity and a plunge in the value of United stock.
To make matters worse – if that was even possible – United’s CEO initially issued a statement praising the efforts of airline personnel and security officers for the “involuntary de-boarding” process and suggesting it was all the passenger’s fault for being disruptive and belligerent.
Within days, the deboarded doctor had lawyered up, and United had changed its tune to one of apology and remorse. But the images were still out there for all the world to see, and the damage to United’s brand had already been done.
Five Takeaways For Lawyers
- It’s not what you do, but how you do it. Airlines have a right to overbook flights. They do it all the time. They can also bump travelers from one flight to another, depending on the situation, and they can ask passengers to give up their seats. But while all of this might have been relevant in a court of law, none of it mattered in the court of public opinion. Overpowering all else was the image of the elderly doctor – who also happened to be a paying customer – crying out in confusion while being manhandled like a piece of luggage.
- Don’t blame the victim. In a tense and tragic situation, it is never helpful to point fingers, especially at the man with blood streaming down his face.
- Put the customer first. The problem arose because United needed four extra seats for a flight crew that needed to get to Louisville. This means the airline put the interests of its employees over its customers – never a good idea.
- Don’t issue a press release commending your staff for a job well done. Even if your people went by the book and followed the letter of the law, it won’t earn you any brownie points to state publicly, “Heckuva job, Brownie.”
- It’s okay to show a little empathy. The outcry might not have been so loud if the CEO had included in his statement an expression of regret for the incident and concern for the victim. He could have done this in a manner that neither acknowledged liability nor compromised his company’s position in any future legal proceedings.
Passenger’s Bill of Rights
There was one silver lining in this whole gloomy episode: calls were renewed for a Passenger’s Bill of Rights. Even some airline industry officials say this would be a good thing.
How about a Bill of Rights for your clients? You could post it on your website and in the waiting room.
- CNN http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/10/travel/passenger-removed-united-flight-trnd/
- Business Insider http://www.businessinsider.com/united-airlines-ceo-letter-employee-2017-4
- New York Courts – Client Statement of Rights http://www.nycourts.gov/COURTS/5jd/lewis/forms/Statement%20of%20Client's%20Rights%20and%20Responsibilities.htm